#FreeSimmons. The hashtag that temporarily rocks the Twitter-verse. Free him because we know he’s lived in chains for too long. Simmons has been shackled to ESPN, making millions of dollars and building his brand, for far too long. First a writer, then a podcast voice, next a Twitter beacon, eventually the curator of one of the more interesting sports and culture websites that inhabits our vast internet, Grantland. Simmons now has as keen an awareness of the pulse of our modern culture and the most ubiquitous platform on which to opine. He is today’s deity of sports media. And ESPN, the stoic father-figure of today’s deity, knows the power of his influence.
The ever-popular B.S. Report podcast is Simmons’ own little corner of the internet that he would like to claim total authority over, except that ESPN occasional scolds Simmons for his opinions, suspending him, effectively putting him on “mute” for a few weeks.
As you may have heard, the National Football League is in the middle of a public relations disaster, a shit-storm, and the fecal matter has been flying out from the front office whenever Roger Goodell opens his door, which is why he’s mostly silent. The NFL’s decision makers have been consistently evasive and pleaded ignorance on a number of issues over the last several years. Finally the rising tide has caught up with them. The most popular sport in our land is also the most scandalized. Is it surprising? Not really.
The Violence Inherent in the System (cue Monty Python music)
We are talking about an inherently violent game in which incredibly large and spectacularly fast men launch themselves at each other hundreds of times each year, sometimes with the intention of injuring each other, as has been documented by 2012’s New Orleans Saints team-wide scandal, dubbed “Bounty gate.” The fact that men don’t actually die on the field every Sunday is somewhat remarkable. These are our modern “warriors,” and we glamorize their physical courage and mythologize their manhood. When many of these “warriors” do things off the field that aren’t so glamorous or courageous, we turn to the $44 million dollar man, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.
“Don’t worry,” is the subtext. “We’re in control of these (fill-in the blank, depending on how you think the NFL’s front office individuals view the men involved in these altercations.)” A fine. A suspension. Pending legal action. Settlements. A brief flurry of ESPN-scrolled controversy. We are so immune to this type of coverage, it seamlessly blends into the background. It shouldn’t be ignored, but it becomes so common and so casually and scandalously covered, it becomes either meaningless or nauseating, depending on your perspective.
ESPN is not the only enemy here, and has in fact been critical of Goodell over the last few months, though one could argue it was unavoidable that they show some ethical backbone when the public demands it. The investigative show, Outside the Lines, attempts to tackle the issues, so to speak, but they also milk the issues like overripe udders; grist for the mill, sparking both outrage and satisfaction. In the center of these whirling winds is Roger Goodell, the face of the NFL. An easy target who has rarely been so clearly targeted (until now), because of the popularity of his sport, and the tactically evasive legalistic and linguistic practices the NFL employs. With modern media (Twitter, Facebook, TMZ, Deadspin, video clips, audio clips, and fear of losing sponsors) turning on the morality lights (morality strobe lights? morality off, then on, then off, etc.), the casual fan now demands some action. Consumers of sporting entertainment must now occasionally reckon with the disturbing (to the myopic) reality that the institutional politics and ethical/unethical policing of athletes cannot be so cleanly separated from the games themselves. Why? Because a sea of male football fans who happen to be in committed, loving relationships now have to explain their views on domestic violence and child abuse to their partners before they can watch football with a working conscience.
Goodell’s Approval Rating, Simmons Commentary and ESPN’s Suspension of Simmons
Last week, Sports Illustrated polled 500 NFL fans on their opinions of controversial issues related to the league. Only 29% of respondents believe Goodell should keep his job in the wake of the controversy. On September 11, Simmons devoted his “mail bag” column to Goodell and the reasons he should be fired or forced to resign. Goodell finally spoke to the media last Friday, in a press conference that was hilariously evasive and defensive (check John Oliver’s commentary below). Unsurprisingly, the string of words that Goodell spoke did little to diffuse the public’s collective frustration and anger with the league office. This past Monday, Simmons used his podcast to explain his personal animosity toward both Goodell and ESPN’s censorship machine. After calling Goodell a “liar” and the presser “pure fucking bullshit,” Simmons went on to pre-emptively defend himself against the ESPN higher-ups (Yes, even the saintly Simmons still has higher-ups at ESPN) who would likely take issue with his words about Goodell. By “daring” them to do something, ESPN’s authority was tested. This was akin to a teenager daring his parents to ground him after he comes home after curfew once again.
Here’s the thing: we should applaud Simmons for taking the somewhat progressive stance that Goodell’s line of bullshit is intolerable and the NFL absolutely must make real change in the way they handle things. On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly going out on a limb.
Simmons knows he has a massive and loyal following and he knows that the vast majority of his fans are under the age of 50 (Simmons himself is 45), relatively progressive, and have no love for commissioners of any sport. He also knows the vast majority of his fans do not approve of having the wool so obviously pulled over their eyes the way they used to. Simmons has been vocal in his criticisms of former-NBA commissioner David Stern for most of his writing life. In fact, since moving to the ESPN-funded Grantland, Simmons has increasingly voiced his concerns for the network’s choices. From criticizing the lowest-common-denominator morning show First Take to this recent move, Simmons knows that his core fans are ambivalent at best about ESPN, and positioning himself in opposition to ESPN actually makes Simmons appear to be the lone wolf he probably wishes he could still be. Instead, he is the leader of the wolf-pack, that traveling horde of talented writers at Grantland, the Honors English class of the high school, instead of the remedial-level ESPN. On Twitter, where Simmons has just under 3 million non-wolf-pack-leaders, Simmons is impenetrable.
Which brings us to #FreeSimmons. Outrage! Simmons is silenced! Three weeks of the mute button! Podcastus Interruptus! The humanity!
Is ESPN right to punish Simmons for stating what most semi-conscious sports fans already felt about Roger Goodell? Are they simply doing what they have to do to appease the owners (and ignore their collective conscience) of the already embattled NFL? Should Simmons be set free? Free from what? Daring his teacher to send him to the principal again? He’ll be even cooler when he comes out.
What would be better than #FreeSimmons? Simmons asking his merry band of followers to reconsider their interest (and his own) in the NFL. Of course, that would be going out on a limb. That would be genuinely controversial. That would mean getting political and alienating a huge portion of his audience. He knows them too well to do that. Instead, he’ll enjoy his three-week vacation.